MM&M first wrote about health media’s COVID-19 coverage several thousand news cycles ago — on February 3, to be precise. That story concluded with the following paragraph:
So it will continue to fall on health media to alternately inform, educate, soothe and de-escalate. “We really need to keep thinking through how we do our jobs in an environment, like this one, where there can be misinformation. If I talk about bat soup, versus ‘be sure to wash your hands,’ what’s going to get more traffic? We need to do more to elevate credible information, even if it sometimes is boring.”
That last quote, from WebMD chief medical officer Dr. John Whyte, feels prescient with the benefit of hindsight. Sporadic bursts of overcaution notwithstanding, health media publications and commentators embraced their elevation mission. Drowning out the deniers and grifters wasn’t always easy, but nearly every health media organization attacked the task with insight and empathy. In doing so, they elevated the level of understanding and, in all likelihood, prevented people from getting sick, or sicker.
For an insider view of the continuing coverage of COVID-19, we asked leaders from a range of media-adjacent organizations to weigh in on social media follows, coverage blind spots and more. The MM&M media panel included: Jack Barrette, CEO and founder of Wego Health; Amy Conway, editor-in-chief of Health; Alexandra Gilson, director, social media at CMI/Compas; Richelle Horn, senior director, marketing at Wego Health; Craig Mait, president and chief revenue officer of Mesmerize; Andrea Palmer, president of Publicis Health Media; Georgette Pascale, founder and CEO of Pascale Communications; Dr. Judith Simmons, managing director of healthcare at Gather and founder of Lion Head Advisors; Cynthia Spitalny, senior director, integrated marketing at Outcome Health; and Whyte. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What have been your COVID-19 must-follows on social media, and why?
Simmons: Good curation has been key. COVID updates at The New York Times, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, STAT, Nature Briefing, Science, The COVID Tracking Project, The New England Journal of Medicine, Kaiser Health News and the CDC have kept up with the rapid pace of important information. Current and former officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Tom Frieden and Andy Slavitt are experienced and valued voices.
Palmer: Time’s Up Healthcare (@timesuphc) on Twitter. Only 20% of the decision-makers in healthcare are women, which was an issue before the pandemic and will continue to be an issue if we don’t advocate in this space. From a media standpoint, it’s been fascinating to see how brands are embracing platforms such as TikTok to spread helpful messaging, from P&G’s use of influencers to drive the #DistanceDance phenomenon to fitness and athletic companies creating at-home workout challenges.
Whyte: I focus on Twitter, because I find Instagram doesn’t provide the ability to have as much dialogue. @Gil_Bashe curates interesting scientific and policy-type articles. @JeromeAdams, the Surgeon General’s personal account, provides a personal perspective as well as succinct advice on managing the pandemic. @DrJenCaudle is an African-American physician who shares very practical advice.
Conway: On Twitter, Angela Rasmussen (@angie_rasmussen) is a Columbia virologist who shares and demystifies the latest news on COVID-19, calls out others for disinformation and promotes diversity and inclusion — and manages to do it all with a dose of humor. Craig Spencer (@Craig_A_Spencer) an ER doctor and Director of Global Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, has shared what it was like to be on the front lines back in March — and if you’re looking for guidance on masks, read his “A Soliloquy on Masks.” Leah Douglas (@leahjdouglas), a reporter for the Food & Environment Reporting Network, has been mapping COVID-19 outbreaks in the food system. The coverage is impressive, fascinating and terrifying.
Gilson: Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a voice of authority in this new normal, with New Yorkers being on the frontlines battling the pandemic in its early stages.
Spitalny: With multiple family members and friends working in healthcare, I am a big champion of frontline essential workers. Mask Match, a nonprofit that helps people with spare masks send them directly to healthcare workers on the front lines or donate to replenish their PPE, was something important to elevate.
Mait: We have relied on the CDC to track cases in the U.S. and for information to protect ourselves and our communities. We have also become more active on LinkedIn than ever before, seeking out leaders of similar-sized organizations to ours to see how they are responding to and dealing with the situation.
Barrette: One of my favorites on Facebook is frontline nurse and immunocompromised patient leader MarlaJan Wexler, who cuts through the politics and BS as only a nurse can do.
Who have been the most authoritative and effective COVID-19 writers and voices in traditional media?
Whyte: Laurie McGinley at the Washington Post always provides good analysis of important issues. She’s not trying to get clicks. STAT is terrific for a daily morning update. And living in the Washington, D.C. area, I find Bob Cusack and his team at The Hill helps me understand everything happening in DC that may impact me. It’s succinct and timely.
Spitalny: It has been interesting to see how mainstream journalists have been covering the innovative ways companies have addressed their business challenges during the pandemic. I have also been listening to a lot more news through podcasts, like NPR’s up first and NY Times’ The Daily. They help prepare me for the day and keep me apprised of topics that may become important to what we message and pursue as an organization.
Palmer: COVID has shown us just how important it is to create content with a conscience—content that works in service to the people who consume it. Let’s elevate voices in the media who are dedicated to truth and facts, like Pien Huang from the Science Desk at NPR. Since the start of the outbreak, she has consistently shared thought-provoking pieces that aim to educate readers.
Conway: Olga Khazn’s articles for The Atlantic are engrossing and surprising, answering questions you might not even have thought to ask: Why did it take so long for therapists to start seeing clients remotely? Why does America’s sick leave policy work against its workers? Is a socially distanced pool still fun? STAT’s no-nonsense news reporting by Sharon Begley, Helen Branswell and Andrew Joseph goes deep into the science of COVID-19 but is always readable, engaging and enlightening.
Barrette: Overall, traditional media has pounded us with the latest hour’s sound bites from experts who themselves are learning real time about this disease. The result is confusion, fear, complacency and desensitized consumers
Gilson: More important than individual voices has been the collective conversation on COVID, stemming from patients and HCPs trying to navigate chronic diseases and cancer which did not let up despite the pandemic monopolizing health conversations. Those patients and their doctors are still in need of critical information, now more than ever, to keep up to date on treatments and recovery in a post-COVID world. Individual voices such as Governor Cuomo and Dr. Fauci will continue to be important in the evolving climate, but Pharma should continue to pay attention to the masses in understanding trends and sentiment within healthcare.
Pascale: Local papers and online sources are covering the news that is real and relevant to you. Sometimes it’s most helpful to track how things are influencing you locally, in your own backyard.
Simmons: The New York Times has stood out in providing local, national, and global views, reporting on the science, and publishing beautiful data visualizations that have helped make information clear for readers.
Mait: Unfortunately, many of us are avoiding mainstream media and news cable channels as they appear to be adding to the problem by politicizing COVID-19. We’ve relied on Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio’s daily press briefings on TV for updates on COVID-19’s progress in New York. We try to listen to the medical professionals giving proper information, like the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Is there a piece of reporting or a feature story or even a social-media thread published between mid-March and now that sticks with you as especially smart, funny, touching or prescient?
Spitalny: I am most impressed by 17-year-old Avi Schiffmann, the high school web developer who had the foresight to begin tracking COVID-19 in December when it wasn’t really a news topic in the United States. His website demonstrates that ingenuity and talent can come from anywhere. Although he was offered up to $8 million from sponsors and has had numerous job offers, he declined all of it; he is adamant about protecting the integrity of the data and the site.
Simmons: Dr. Craig Smith, chair of the Department of Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, started writing a series of daily letters that spanned a 50,000-foot overview to the ground level of his hospital. He shared important information with perspective, warmth, context and occasionally poetry. Each letter was a realistic and human assessment of the moment and collectively they have become a narrative of the pandemic.
Palmer: NPR’s “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?” should be required reading. It’s thorough and outlines through visuals and statistics how and why people of color are so disproportionately affected by COVID-19. We need to put this new data into action, creating points of connection and communication where they are missing or ineffective. Moving America in a healthy direction will be about more than combatting the virus effectively; it’ll be about advancing our society justly and inclusively.
Conway: “Some Coronavirus Guidelines,” a New Yorker piece by John Kenney published in March, offers “helpful guidelines” on how to handle the Coronavirus crisis—beginning with the simple “don’t panic” and “wash your hands” and progressing to the end of the world. It’s funny because it pokes fun at the very real escalation of thoughts and fears we were having at the time (and still are!).
Whyte: The reporting in March around the growing mental health epidemic was prescient. I think some people thought it was just anxiety and would go away. But we are seeing how the pandemic is exacerbating mental health issues in those persons already diagnosed, as well as creating new mental health problems in people who never exhibited problems. I give credit to Arianna Huffington and her Thrive platform, which has been sounding the alarm bell from the beginning. The medical community has only recently come around to recognizing the problem.
What has been missing or shortchanged in COVID-related coverage during the last few months?
Spitalny: The personal impact that this pandemic has taken on HCPs has felt overlooked. My husband is a physician’s assistant and works at a major hospital, so seeing his day-to-day activity and knowing that other HCPs are probably going through something similar (burnout, cut wages for longer hours, etc.) suggest there are stories that needed to be told that were grittier than just the headline.
Whyte: We don’t have an adequate explanation of the data. We report the number of cases and deaths, but we don’t focus enough on local infection rates and what they mean. Early on, many cases occurred in clusters in certain counties. That was relevant to know when we talked about containment. We also didn’t acknowledge the uncertainty of data, that we were learning as we went along. So we made different recommendations at different times relating to masks and antibody testing. That caused confusion and eroded trust.
Mait: During the last few months, there has been a lack of leadership from the federal government, a lack of a centralized voice with clear messaging and, of course, a lack of scientific data given the novelty of the disease. This disease is something that so clearly should not be politicized, yet it has been. What we need is a real task force with a centralized voice that everyone has access to and that is not politicized. Coverage should focus on the top doctors and what they are doing and saying about COVID-19 and the reasons why.
Simmons: The unprecedented breadth of achievements in six months related to this virus and pandemic. COVID-19 is a totally new disease and when I look back on what has been accomplished in basic science, therapeutics, clinical management, vaccine development, transmission and adjustments in how people live and work – in just months – it’s amazing. It matters because we need to use the growing bank of facts and science that we have learned to guide us as we move ahead. We know a lot more now.
Horn: Having had cancer and working so closely with patient leaders, I would like to see more coverage on how people living with chronic health conditions (immunocompromised, genetic disorders, metabolic disorders) should safely, if at all, re-enter society as things begin to open up.
Pascale: People have mistakenly thought this was going to be over by now. We need to continue to put emphasis on what we are doing as we move forward. For example, with my son’s basketball camp canceled, we made do by involving him with a mini-camp in the neighborhood. These kinds of things are important to talk about, as they show how people are functioning during this time. Hyperlocal pieces can be helpful, witty and smart, and get people to a better place of understanding.
Conway: The reporting is starting to catch up, but it took a while before there was substantial coverage about how discrimination and disparity play into the pandemic. Because of long-standing inequities, African-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos and American Indians/Alaskan Natives are at increased risk for getting or becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. The LGBTQ+ community already faces discrimination when seeking healthcare and may avoid getting care. Socioeconomic disparity means that children without computers or reliable Wi-Fi are not able to learn online. Workers without paid sick leave or other benefits may put themselves or others into vulnerable situations. The list goes on.
Palmer: We need to make sure that science-based solutions are not being politicized in the news. With the rise of Black Lives Matter, we are now more aware of the social determinants that have led to disproportionate COVID-19 cases in the Black community – but we haven’t heard enough about solutions. Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than White Americans. That statistic should send shock waves through everyone, and inspire wide-scale behavior change. If individuals aren’t doing it themselves, it’s worth asking in our industry how media and marketing can create the impetus for broader institutional change to take place.
As the country continues to reopen – and, in some instances, re-close – what would you most like to see in ongoing health-media coverage?
Whyte: 1. Data needs to be presented in terms of local infection rates. Everyone isn’t a NYC or small town in Wyoming. You need to put the data in context. 2. Stop all the talk about the vaccine, because it’s just not realistic. Let’s have a real discussion around risk and help people understand how to live with the virus. 3. Acknowledge the role of innovation. Despite some problems with testing and mixed results from therapeutics, we had nothing five months ago. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.
Simmons: We haven’t communicated a clear understanding of how the virus is transmitted, how pandemics grow and how one person’s actions may affect others. Mask wearing has become politicized, rather than normalized, and that must change. We’ve got to keep refreshing people’s knowledge and presenting essential information in all ways across all platforms. This virus is not going away and we will have to adapt to it.
Conway: 1. The importance of improving diversity in the fields of science and medical care. In 2018, just 5% of active doctors in the United States identified as Black or African-American, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. According to the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association, just 4% of psychologists in the U.S. and 2% of psychiatrists are Black. Having different viewpoints and voices can improve care for all. 2. What are the long-term ramifications for children in terms of socialization, education and overall health and well-being? What services have special-needs children been getting—or more importantly, not getting—during the pandemic?
Barrette: 1. Share concrete steps that every consumer can take, and specifically how those steps will lessen the suffering caused by the virus *in their area*. For example, “if 80% of Bostonians wore masks starting now, you could watch the Red Sox in August. If it’s just 50%, the season is canceled.” 2. Check the facts before publishing anything. If they’re wrong, either don’t put them out or correct them. 3. Share more stories of “how [US geography here] truly flattened the curve” and back it up with data.
Spitalny: I’d like to see coverage of how content providers are creating compelling, unbiased information about the benefits of wearing a mask. I’d also like to see a full 360-degree look at what’s happening in healthcare beyond the explosion of telehealth. I’d like to see journalists tackle touchy topics like, for example, if hospitals are losing money because of electives being pushed or on the personal impact of the coronavirus crisis on HCPs in terms of mental health and loan burden. Are these crises within a crisis?
Pascale: 1. Focusing on the positives a bit more would be nice. There has been some good news that hasn’t received enough recognition. 2. Reiterating that we still need to be responsible. We need to find a balance in coverage about continuing to take precautions, and how to do so. Repetition builds retention! 3. Collaborating and working together to make things happen quicker, especially scientifically. With more people sharing data when developing drugs, the endpoint can be sped up safely and effectively.
Horn: I would like to see more of an emphasis on preventative care. What are the effects of skipping or delaying appointments, or discontinuing medications? As someone who had her thyroid cancer detected during a normal well visit, I want the media to encourage people to continue to seek care during this time.
Palmer: Talk about a moving target. A little while ago, we were excited about gradual reopening and outdoor dining. By late June, we were seeing around 40,000 new cases a day, with Dr. Fauci warning the sum could rise to 100,000 new cases a day. That said, the media needs to continue focusing on prevention and caution. When this started, we saw a lot of coverage around quick fixes for our stress levels and overall quarantine wellness, such as virtual fitness classes. Now, we know we are in this for the long run, and people need endurance. They need long-term solutions to the mental health challenges we’re mired in. Coming off COVID-19, we need the media to look at mental health with fresh eyes and future-facing insights.